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US Puts on Hold New Machine-Readable Passport Requirement - 2003-09-12


The United States is postponing enforcement of rules requiring citizens of certain countries, most of them European, to have machine-readable passports to enter the United States. However, the U.S. government is still pushing for them to have more tamper-proof passports in one year.

New rules that would have required 27 countries to issue their citizens computer-coded, machine-readable passports have been put on hold.

The rules, which apply to foreigners who normally can enter the United States without a visa, were laid down by Congress in the "USA Patriot Act," and would have gone into force on October 1st.

But a number of foreign governments, including Switzerland, France, and Italy, told U.S. officials that they could not get the high-tech passports into circulation in time, and that immediate enforcement would cause chaos.

Stuart Patt of the State Department's Consular Affairs Bureau says countries that feel they cannot meet the deadline can request and receive a one-year waiver.

Mr. Patt explained: "We are asking that, if a country does want to request such an extension on behalf of its citizens, that they are working toward coming up with a machine-readable passport program that will get that passport into the hands of all the travelers, and that they will see to it that their non-machine-readable passports are handled with appropriate security."

The requirements, passed after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States two years ago, are intended to keep track of entrants and to stop suspected terrorists from getting into the United States on phony passports.

Mr. Patt says machine-readable passports, which can be scanned by a computer and automatically checked against a database, are simply more secure. And, he says, even more stringent passport requirements are on the horizon.

"The machine-readable passport is less subject to tampering, is a more fraud-resistant document," he said. "But ultimately, all of these countries are going to be moving toward a biometric indicator on the passport as well. And we want to encourage them to get to that point, which will be necessary by October 26t of next year - 2004."

Mr. Patt points out that the type of biometric indicator on the passport is up to the International Civil Aviation Organization, but will likely be something like computerized recognition of facial characteristics in the photograph.

Most of the 27 countries, where citizens are not required to have visas to enter the United States and where the computer-readable passports are required, are in Europe, but also include Australia, New Zealand and Japan.

For countries not included in the visa-waiver program, the State Department is now requiring a personal interview by a consular official of nearly every first-time applicant for a U.S. visa.

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